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Fighting Tigers comeback comes up short

ATHENS-- Haven't we seen this somewhere before?

Let's see. Last year in the playoffs the Portsmouth Trojans took a 21-0 lead and held on for dear life as the Ironton Fighting Tigers came storming back, only to lost 35-27.

Friday night in the Division IV Region 15 semifinals at Ohio University's Peden Stadium, Portsmouth turned a couple of Ironton mistakes and a couple of big plays into a 20-0 lead.

But back came the Fighting Tigers, who closed to within 28-20 at one point and missed out on another golden scoring opportunity. As it turned out, the missed opportunities and key plays by the Trojans spelled a 35-20 defeat for Ironton.

"This game was kind of a combination of last year (playoff game) and this year (regular season game). But we played harder than we did (in this year's game)," Ironton coach Bob Lutz said.

"We moved the ball, but we didn't stop them. You've got to play defense and we're not a very good defensive team. We knew coming in that we had to play better defense. We didn't want to get in a shootout with them."

Lutz was right. Ironton (8-3) put up some impressive offensive numbers, but the Trojans were more than equal to the task.

Ironton ran for 131 yards as Matt White gained 90 yards on 18 carries, about 12 carries under his average. Josh Sands added 35 yards as both runners finished with 1,000 yards for the season.

Quarterback Andrew Harvey had the best game of his career by connecting on 10-of-16 pass for 135 yards. His lone interception was a desperation throw with time running out.

Portsmouth quarterback Craig Felts had another big game. He ran for 32 yards and two scores while hitting 9- of-11 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. Jeremiah Bolden, who ran for 174 yards in the first meeting, had 97 yards on 18 carries. Fullback Jeremy Mathis had 59 yards on 14 attempts and caught a scoring pass.

The win puts Portsmouth (11-1) in the regional finals against Portsmouth West at 7:30 p.m. next Friday, probably at Ironton's Tanks Memorial Stadium unless the OHSAA wants the game on the Peden Stadium artificial surface.

The Trojans asserted themselves on the opening drive of the game by marching 57 yards in 13 plays, capped by Felts' 9-yard pass to Mathis, and it was 6-0.

Ironton went three-and-out and was forced to punt. But the 27-yard kick was returned 62 yards by Michael Purdy for a touchdown and it was 12-0.

"We had poor coverage. We bunched in tight instead of staying in our lanes and we had no one on the outside," Lutz said.

The Fighting Tigers began to drive the ball on the next series only to fumble at the Portsmouth 43. Nine plays later, Felts kept the ball and ran 13 yards for the score. He passed to Tyler Clifford for the conversion and it was 20-0 with 11:19 left in the half.

However, the game was far from over.

On the ensuring possession, Ironton went 64 yards in eight plays to get on the scoreboard. White ran 7 yards for the touchdown and A.J. Lutz kicked the extra point to make it 20-7.

A 21-yard kickoff return to the 44 by Purdy and a 28-yard pass from Felts to Jordan Nelson put the ball at the Ironton 1-yard line and set up a scoring run by Felts on the next play, despite illegal motion on the play by several Trojans, and it was 26-7 with 5:33 on the clock.

Ironton's next drive proved to be crucial toward the outcome.

A 34-yard Harvey-to-White pass got the ball to the Trojans 32, and a 12-yard scamper by Daniel Murphy made it first-and-goal at the 10-yard line.

White ran twice for 8 yards, but was stopped cold on third down for no gain. Murphy got the call on a misdirection play, but Portsmouth stopped him for no gain and took over on downs at the 2.

"I think that was probably the turning point of the game," Portsmouth coach Curt Clifford said.

"Deep in the back of your mind, you know you're not going to execute like that the whole ballgame against a quality opponent like Ironton. I told the kids at halftime 'that's Ironton sitting down there in that other locker room boys, and they know how to win big games. They've been in big games and they are going to come out and play their rear ends off.'"

And Ironton did. Taking the second half kickoff, Ironton went 63 yards in nine plays, capped by Sands' 7-yard run to make it 26-13.

Portsmouth had its own drive to the 3, but Ironton stopped Mathis for no gain on fourth down.

However, Tyler Clifford tackled Harvey in the end zone two plays later for a safety and it was 28-13.

Ironton got the ball back and a 30-yard pass to Sands put the ball at the Trojans 27. Six plays later White went the final yard for the score and it was 28-20 with 9:35 to play.

Portsmouth got a clinching touchdown with just 1:49 to play. Ironton had 10 men on the line of scrimmage, and Bolden broke the plane and went 40 yards for the score.